The first thing I remember doing with Raymond is wrestling him on the floor during naptime trying to get him to turn around so he’d finally stop talking to (and throwing his shoes and socks at) his little brother. I pried his dark brown 5-year-old fingers off the bar at the end of his cot and flopped him over so that his head ended up where his feet had previously been. Then I got up.
“Quiet now, heads down. I don’t want to hear another word!”
Eight heads with short, rough, tightly curled black hair were lowered—for now. I exited the nap area rapidly, leaving the preschoolers to do whatever they wanted as long as they didn’t implicate me by making me hear that they weren’t sleeping.
It was spring break, and a group of students from Fellowship of Christian Athletes at St. Olaf College had decided to spend the week in Chicago, working at homeless shelters on evenings and at Miss Pearl’s daycare in Roseland during the day. The Good News Daycare is for kids of teenage moms, who are able to finish high school because Miss Pearl gives them a place to take their children. She has about six babies, five or six toddlers and around eight preschoolers on an average day.
Monday was our first day with the kids, and Kristi, Sarah and I worked with the preschoolers. With white college students swarming around and strange new people taking care of them, the kids were wound up, to say the least. There were three of us to eight of them, but that didn’t help much. Their memory verse for the week was Psalm 103:1.
“Okay, now repeat after me: ‘Bless the Lord'” Sarah’s voice was gentle.
“B-b-b-b-b,” came the reply, little fingers bouncing lower lips up and down.
“‘O my soul'” she continued. At this point, Miss Pearl walked in. Standing at the head of the kid-sized table, she looked at the little figures in their colored plastic chairs.
“What’s this?!” The noise diminished considerably.
“Zip your lips!” It died down even more. All eyes were now on her—almost. Raymond still squirmed in his chair, sitting partly cross-legged on his left foot.
“What’d God give you?”
Apparently this was a familiar routine, because Raymond shot back,
“Well, then get it in that chair!!”
The three of us watched in utter amazement as Miss Pearl had them lay their heads flat on the table to calm down. When she told them to sit up again and fold their hands and pray after her, the replies rang out loud and clear. The change was so sudden that I for one felt an urge to kneel in awe.
After having fled the room full of preschoolers during naptime, I asked Miss Pearl if there was anything we could do differently to diminish the chaos at least somewhat. After giving us a few tips, she began telling us about the kids.
“Raymond and Rashad – you know, two of the ones who were acting up – they get shoved around and yelled at a lot at home, and so when they come here and people are gentle and kind to them, they don’t know what to do with themselves.”
I nodded, understanding.
“They just think they can do whatever they want.”
“Yeah, they’re not used to it.”
Something connected inside me, and I decided that I didn’t just want to give up on these boys as hopeless troublemakers. I only had a week, but I wanted to break through to them somehow.
The next morning when we arrived at the daycare, the mood was subdued. Raymond, we found out, had been beaten Monday night for having paint on his pants from an art project. I couldn’t tell for sure, but the skin around his left eye looked too dark for the rest of his face.
By Wednesday, I had learned to follow in Miss Pearl’s footsteps.
Miss Pearl’s main form of discipline was to put the children in time out. At least five or six times every day Raymond would disobey deliberately. After repeating what I wanted him to do, if there was still no response, I learned simply to pick him up, carry him into the adjacent room and leave him in an empty crib (the kind with metal bars).
“When you’re ready to obey, and tell me you’re sorry, you can join us again.”
The defiance usually flared up at that, and he’d jump around, trying to pretend that he was going to climb out of the crib.
To my amazement, one long hard look over my shoulder was enough to keep him where he belonged. Only once in the whole week did he climb out. We had been playing outside, and when his turn on the swing ended, he lay on the ground, whining and kicking, unable to calm down. I tried to hold him on my lap to help him relax, but nothing I could say seemed to have any impact. I wondered if he was even hearing me. Finally, I picked the squirming bundle up and carried him inside, put him in time-out and tried to go find someone to help me.
But Miss Pearl was busy. My heart sank when I walked back into the nursery to find the door open and the crib empty. Great, I thought, picturing him back outside happily enjoying the swings, there go my chances of really showing him I care. He’ll never take me seriously again.
Slowly, I walked to the back door, dreading Raymond’s victorious glee. Instead, I was shocked when to find he had only made it down three steps on the back stairs. He turned around, and his head sank down between his shoulders. It was no pretend show of penitence. I hadn’t seen him look that guilty all week. Inside I melted, but I tried to stay stern.
“In here. Now.”
He turned slowly and retraced his steps to the nursery. We sat on the floor together, and talked for a while. He said he was sorry, and I did what I had wanted to do all along. I wrapped my arms around him and held him tight.
On Friday, our last day, we took 60 children from Miss Pearl’s neighborhood to the Chicago Children’s Museum. Each of we St. Olaf students had one or two buddies for the day, and mine was Raymond. I remember being slightly apprehensive because there was no time-out room in the museum. I had started considering bathroom stalls as an option by the time we arrived at the museum to meet the kids, but I shouldn’t have worried. Raymond had way too much fun that day to bother disobeying, although he did get so excited that he had difficulty walking calmly. Even though running was not allowed in the museum and I found myself diving around corners to catch up with him and slow him down, I couldn’t be seriously angry.
There was a miniature hospital area on the second floor, complete with counters, an examining table, and a lit-up wall on which to look at the stack of x-ray prints. Someone had helped Raymond put on one of the miniature light green doctors’ smocks.
“Lay down!” he pointed at the examining table. “So what’s wrong with you?” the husky little voice demanded.
“Well, I have a fever and a sore throat.” I replied truthfully.
Unable to get at the examining instruments because they were under
plexiglass, Raymond grabbed one of the square black plastic X-ray sheets. Placing it on my chest, he questioned me about the bones. Before I could answer, he changed the sheet, and then had me get off the table and kneel on the floor (my sickness was irrelevant now) so that he could hold the sheets up to me better.
As I watched the small figure move around the room, his skin glowing darkly against the light smock, I couldn’t help thinking what a perfect little doctor he was. I commented to one of the girls from my group, who was in the hospital with her little buddy, “Doesn’t he just look like something from ER?”
She grinned and nodded as he brought over the next sheet of X-rays.
He’s starting school this fall. He’ll be going to Lavizzo Elementary, 100 percent black, 94 percent low-income. Raymond’s chances of ever being a doctor are so low as to be practically nonexistent. According to the Test of Basic Skills, in 1999, only 22 percent of the students at Lavizzo were at or above the national norm for Math. For reading, 19 percent. Already in elementary school, 9 percent of the students are chronic truants, meaning that they miss much more school than they attend. Raymond has a one-out-of-two chance of graduating from high school, and a one-in-three chance of being shot at, stabbed or otherwise injured with a weapon while at or on the way to school. Never mind graduating, he might not survive high school.
As I consider the overwhelming odds against Raymond and kids like him from the day they are born, part of me wants to give up. But I know it’s too late. I care now, whether I want to or not. I can’t help it.
Since I got back from Chicago, I’ve written Raymond a postcard and called almost every week. Hope is all he has, if he loses that he’s lost everything. And so for his sake, I don’t want to stop hoping.
On Friday right before I had to leave, we had been playing in the back yard. I took the opportunity to get some time alone with him inside. I told him we were leaving, going back home to Minnesota. He didn’t really understand.
“Yup, I’m goin’ home too.”
I gave him a hug and tried to keep my voice from shaking as the aching started behind my eyes. I blinked quickly.
“I’m going to miss you.”
After a while, he had had enough hugging.
“Can we go back outside and play?”
I pushed open the door, and we bounded down the stairs towards the swing set.
READ MORE LIFE | POST COMMENTS BELOW